Non-Contextualization=Blond hair, blue eyed Jesus’ in Mexico

I just got back from 8 days in Mexico City and one of the things that stuck out to me the most (in a sad, discouraging and appalling way), was all of the photos, paintings, etc. of a Euro Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes all over the city. That is what you get when you ignore contextualization and import some idea of who Jesus is to a foreign culture.

Why do I bring this up? Andrew Jones has a great post on John MacArthur’s and Phil Johnson’s thoughts on contextualization.

John MacArthur said:

The apostles went out with an absolute disdain for contextualization. The modern drive for cultural contextualization is a curse, because people are wsting their time trying to figure out clever ways to draw in the elect. Contextualization is “zip-code ministry.”

And you can read MacArthur’s sidekick Phil Johnson’s thoughts here.

Andrew Jones says:

Well, its true that I do see the need for some cultural sensitivity to both our own culture and the culture to which we are sent.

When some missionaries went to Africa with complete disdain for contextualization, they brought pipe-organs with them so the natives could worship God properly, without their nuances of culture.
When some missionaries went to North America with complete disdain for contextualization, they took away their native dances and forced the converts to learn English so that they could worship God properly, in the correct language, and without their nuances of culture.

Where is Gary Larson when we need him?


I like to think we have moved on from those embarrassing days, that we have gone back to the Scriptures where we find the model of Christ who laid aside his glory and ‘tablernacled’ among us, who grew up in a particular culture, who sent his disciples out on mission telling them to leave their bags behind. We see a Christ who was sensitive to the culture of the people to whom he communicated. He spoke of new birth to a theologian and the water of life to a thirsty outcast. To a blind and deaf man, Jesus used touch and sign gestures to get the message across before he healed him.

Context matters.

Reminds me of the painful experience of being on a mission trip to Fiji, but instead of worshipping in their cultural ways, the Fijians had been “forced” by the previous missionaries to sit in pews, sing from hymns, and abandon their drums.

I can not imagine going into Mexico City as we did this last week and serving and living among the those in dire poverty in the most marginalized of contexts, yet not take their experiences and lives into consideration. As Andrew Jones stated, contextualization, and sensitivity to culture is not the same as accomodation to culture. I agree with others (which Phil Johnson disagrees with), that when Paul spoke in Acts 17:22-34, it is a classic example of contextualization and missions 101 as others have stated.

Phil Johnson is quoted as saying, “you have to avoid looking like traditional church and be more casual, less formal. Burn candles, light some incense sit on sofas and chat with each other. Preach without conviction, ”

If that is contextualization, then isn’t it true that Grace Community Church practices its own contextualization of the gospel through hymns, traditional style services, long, verse by verse expository preaching, etc.? I do not see that anywhere in the gospel, so it would seem that they are contexualizing it for the church goers who come every week.

Let’s all acknowledge the fact that none of us come to the gospel in a pure way, but rather through our own lens, shaped by our upbringing, family, friends, church, culture, etc. And when we view the gospel through our own lens, we often do damage by not taking into consideration the context in which others have experienced the gospel, and in which the ways Jesus has entered into their history.

I think the most devastating thing for American Christians is that we continually contextualize the gospel through a capitalist, politically conservative and WASP work ethic. We then force this onto other cultures when it has nothing to do with the gospel. But that is for a soon to be post.


  1. by Euphranor on April 4, 2008  4:01 pm Reply

    Good post. I think these guys are talking past each other, or rather, are equivocating "gospel contextualization" with "aesthetic contextualization". The former would insist that the gospel message not be fundamentally changed to fit a cultural context. The latter allows for things like buildings (or housechurches) to look differently, worship styles, etc. But the latter ensures the Gospel essentials dont change (see ecumentical creeds). So it isnt about affirming or not affirming contextualization but rather decising what level you will except.

  2. by Rhett Smith on April 4, 2008  6:20 pm Reply

    I agree that there might be some talking past each other. We Christians are good at that.

    I do wonder about MacArthur's statements: I get the feeling that he believes the disciples did not contextualize the message at all to the culture. It was pure gospel, with absence of cultural trappings. Which would be really surprising to me when you look at the synoptics in particular, and the various audiences each one seems to address. Context was important.

    When it comes to Phil Johnson, I think he is suspicious of any church that doesn't look like Grace Community Church, or that practices polity and aesthetics differently. He can't get past the couches, candles and coffee.

    thanks for posting..I appreciate your comments. Always thought provoking.

    You need a blog :-) Maybe you have one?

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.